ARSON: Knysna’s fire teams have had to respond to close on 50 fires due to arson.

The forest fires are not unusual in the Western Cape during the summer and winter. In the case of Knysna, these fires were preceded by equally devastating winds that blew a few kilometres from George. 

Two fires broke out in the morning of June 27 from an area called Harkeville and soon, on both sides of the N2, fires spread to engulf about 10000 hectares of forest.

Last year, 18000 fires were reported in the Western Cape, according to the mayor. The warning stated there were going to be intense gale-force winds but no fires were envisaged, so when the fire broke out, even the emergency services were caught unawares.

The gale-force wind speed was 97km/* , which made matters worse, even for any rescue plan, and rendered the work of firefighters an imponderable task.

Knysna sits in the picturesque western seaboard between Plettenburg Bay and George, overlooking an estuary. It’s a small farming town with an assortment of small industries that thrive from tourism.

The timber forests are the mainstay of economic activity, as evidenced by the many wooden structures in this town.

The town is situated near the sea and is clean and placid.

Beautiful white holiday homes and apartments dot the seashore and a shipping yard completes the picture of residential opulence.

Hidden beyond the normal sight of the seaside, atop the ridge, is nestled an African township named White House.

Knysna woke up on that breezy morning but could not sleep in their homes that night, as raging fires had engulfed most of them.

That morning, the fires began to make their menacing way into the town.

They were propelled by heavy winds and rapidly covered the forest between George and Knysna with flames of fury. By the time the fires reached the town, their strength had multiplied.

The houses next to the waterfront drive, overlooking the lagoon, were the first casualties and the Bridgewater Guest House succumbed to the blaze.

The sad part about the guest house is that its owners are on holiday in the US and had left the business in the hands of their staff.

Their house has burnt to smithereens and their two cars are unrecognisable.

The fire then spread to the township, reaching the upper sections of the informal settlement around 6pm.

By this time, people had returned, after the siren was sounded, and some were discharged early to salvage their belongings, although the fires had rapidly increased.

The burning was exacerbated by the fact that the informal settlement did not have water and efforts to stall its advance were fruitless, if not infinitesimal.

As a result, most of this informal settlement was gutted,as people tried in vain to salvage what was left of their belongings.

Those who had cars could take more belongings and the poorest watched in sadness as their meagre belongings were incinerated.

The congested shacks aided the spread of fire, as one shack touched the other in a systematic disruption of anguish.

This area affected the most badly was Greenfield extension 13 and this was followed by New Rest, where the majority of shacks were burnt, totalling 76 homes.

Love Corner soon followed, as it was in the path of the raging fires, where 17 shacks were burnt to the ground. The other affected areas included Kranabos, Upland and Greenville, to name a few.

According to mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies, the total cost of repairs and restoration amounts to R15.82million. Future intervention will amount to R23.4m.

The smouldering smoke was still very evident when we visited the area last Thursday and the community was in great distress. Humanitarian aid is pouring in, albeit at a slow pace.

The first reaction to the fire was to assist the white areas and it was only later that the townships were considered, given the destruction and its sheer magnitude of the disaster.

Most areas in the suburbs are insured and efforts to rebuild the houses will proceed with greater speed. The support of the banks is commendable and apt during this time of distress.

The poor, on the other hand, have no insurance for their belongings, since they subsist below the bread-line. Their ultimate hope to rebuild their lives rests on the government ameliorating their lot.

The community meeting called by the councillor Velile Waxa saw sentiments expressed that can be summarised as follows: That all informal settlement be upgraded in the area. That sewer, water and electricity be supplied to all, not just those affected by fires, but to all informal settlements. That relief support be expedited. That temporal shelter be provided to the affected people. The province has made a pledge with regard to the latter and MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela can be consulted.

The National Ministry has also assigned a dedicated team to work with the province, both in the immediate and long term.

Much as the Knysna fire cannot be compared with the Portugal fire, in both ferocity and casualties, it was by our national standard catastrophic. The fires that broke out in the Mangaung City Hall were regrettable, to say the least.

Those monitoring the fire season of the Cape must be better prepared to avert another disaster.

One of the lessons learned, according to Bitou’s mayor Peter Lobese, was that communities do not have sufficient knowledge of handling disasters.

There were no fire breaks, especially on the farms. A young volunteer firefighter, Bradley Richard, succumbed to the fire and in his memory, much more must be done to improve the manner of handling disasters.

* ka Plaatjie is the adviser to Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent